Joe Beeman grew up on a cattle farm in Garrett County, Md.
His family was Irish and firmly grounded in the Christian faith.
Decembers were characterized by Christmas carols, evergreens strung with lights and ornaments, and family gathered around for satisfying home-cooked meals.
Christmas time always was a big deal.
Even as an adult, Beeman gathered with his five sisters for Christmas at his childhood home, a “big house full of people” where there was “always music going on.”
So imagine the shock to his system when on Dec. 25, 2004, Beeman, now 33, of Hagerstown, found himself across the globe in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
It would not be a Christmas spent exchanging childhood stories at the farmhouse and sipping hot chocolate by the fire. Instead, he would be completing transport missions and performing city sweeps. Beeman was part of a multinational force fighting an urban war in Iraq.
At that time, Mosul was among the deadliest of places to be. There were bullets and mortar fire every day, Beeman said.
“I saw a mom strapped full of dynamite on a suicide mission, and other moms strapped dynamite to their kids and sent them to us,” he said. “Our enemy didn’t wear a uniform. They just blended in with the population. Our lives were in jeopardy every day.”
Just four days before Christmas, on Dec. 21, 2004, Beeman stood near a mess hall tent at Forward Operating Base Marez. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down to eat when a suicide bomber entered the tent and detonated himself, killing 22 people and wounding more than 70.
The horrific scene was a morbid contrast to the warmth and tranquility of home. But Beeman and others serving at the base had little choice but to regroup and carry on.
His section, part of the 25th Infantry Division, was headed up by a warrant officer named Sam Austin.
“(Austin) told us, ‘We are going to treat each other like a family of 30. We are not blood, but we are going to be family,’” Beeman said.
The soldiers bought one another Secret Santa gifts at the Post Exchange. Some of the men would be heading out on a mission on Christmas Eve and wouldn’t return until after Christmas Day, so they determined to celebrate before they left. The unit rose early on Dec. 23, hustling to complete mission preparations.
Their work finished, they gathered in Austin’s bedroom to exchange gifts, then headed to a mess hall for dinner. The food was “not Christmassy.” It was whatever was on the menu that day, Beeman said. But the tent was decorated and had a lighted tree in the corner, and Christmas music played.
Before they ate, Austin stood to say a blessing. He prayed for family and friends back home, and encouraged the soldiers to keep going. Men were choking up.
“It’s rough to see tough men, your friends, crying and trying to hide it. No one thought any less of them. It’s rough, especially on the young guys, 18, 19 years old, who’ve never been away from family,” said Beeman, who had a wife and two stepchildren back home. “We’d tell them, ‘It’s all right, brother. It’ll be fine.’”
Still, it was a good day, Beeman said.
“We all laughed and chuckled. After dinner, we came back and huddled in this little room where there was a wee little TV. We tried to make it like home, and to relax as much as we could. We just watched movies and faded off,” he said.
A few hours later, it was back to work, loading trucks and reviewing intelligence. Beeman’s team of 10 prayed for safety, then set out at midnight on Christmas Eve. Their mission was to transport a group of doctors to a base in Kuwait 826 miles to the south.
The group traveled Highway 80, also known as the Highway of Death. Beeman said the road was known as a frequent site for roadside bombings.
“It was dangerous. We could’ve died. It’s the nature of what soldiers do, especially when you leave the security of base. But when you have a job to do, you can’t think about other things,” he said. “You get numb to a lot of things.”
Beeman remembered some small-arms fire on that trip. But his team arrived safely in Kuwait on the evening of Dec. 24. The base there was better equipped and more secure than his team was accustomed to. Around 2 in the morning on Christmas Day, Beeman went out walking. There had been a celebration at the base, including a nativity scene with a live camel.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is where Jesus was born, here, in this area of the world. This is the same ground that God walked on,’” Beeman said. “It was rather unique to me and I remember it vividly. It really brought to me the real meaning of Christmas.”
Other area veterans have less poignant memories of Christmas in Iraq.
Aaron Taylor, 26, of Hagerstown, served there twice. During his first tour in 2005, he went home for Christmas. But when he returned to Iraq in 2007, Taylor saved his R and R until February, when his wife, Ashlee, was due with their first child.
Taylor said he couldn’t remember much of his Christmas at war. Though he received some presents from home, his unit did not exchange gifts or celebrate. He deliberately stayed as busy as possible.
“I think maybe there was a Christmas dinner, but I was out patrolling, so I didn’t get it,” Taylor said. “It didn’t really register as Christmas Day. It was just another workday.”
Victor Orlando, 46, of Martinsburg, W.Va., took a similar approach during his 2003 deployment in Balad. Orlando worked midnight to noon on Christmas, then volunteered for a four-hour security detail into a nearby town.
“I didn’t have time to think about home. That’s why I took (the detail),” said Orlando, who had been away from his wife and two young boys. “It was business as usual and I wanted to keep it that way.”
He was so exhausted that he went back to his bunk and crashed until the next evening’s shift.
“I kind of did it as a distraction to keep from sitting around thinking about things,” Orlando said.
This year, each of the men will be spending Christmas with their families.
Beeman said he has been thinking a lot about his friends who are serving now, hoping they can find a way to get through Christmas without being “too sad or too upset.”
“Hopefully, they can find the same joy, the same light I found in Christmas when I was over there,” he said. “And hopefully, they’ll come back safe, too.”